Coach Wilks likes Cardinals' roster despite QB void

By The Sports Xchange  |  March 1, 2018 at 1:17 AM
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Arizona Cardinals new head coach Steve Wilks has a pet phrase he has been using time and time again since replacing Bruce Arians and assembling his staff.

"I've said this from day one -- I don't think is a rebuild, it's a retool," Wilks said Wednesday from the NFL Scouting Combine.

Wilks inherits a Cardinals team that has plenty going for it following an 8-8 season that saw the team get decimated by injuries. Arizona returns one of the most electrifying running backs in the league in David Johnson, the 2017 sacks leader in edge rusher Chandler Jones, a defense that for the past three seasons has averaged a top-five ranking, and future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has agreed to play at least one more season.

But things aren't all rosy out in the desert.

For starters, the Cardinals don't have a single quarterback under contract. The offensive line is a work in progress that may call for a major overhaul. There is only one tight end under contract -- Ricky Seals-Jones, an undrafted rookie last season - who isn't coming off major surgery. And there isn't any proven depth at the receiver position behind Fitzgerald.

The Cardinals also have 19 unrestricted free agents, many of whom they would like to re-sign but might not be able to bring back.

Wilks, however, remains confident that the Cardinals will be able to contend for the NFC West title in 2018.

"You have to really look at our roster," he said. "You look at the things that happened last year, with all the injuries we had and still going 8-8, I think is a positive. Those guys are going to be back. Again, we're going to be aggressive in our approach in getting a quarterback and most importantly, trying to improve certain areas, particularly the offensive line.

"I don't think we're far off. I think I put together a great coaching staff. Guys who are great teachers, good communicators and guys who are going to develop the back end of the roster. That's the most important thing moving forward."

The No. 1 priority overall is identifying and landing the team's next starting quarterback while also finding a quality backup or two for safe keeping. Carson Palmer, the starter since 2013, has retired and Arizona is moving on from free agents Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Barkley.

The Cardinals are only expected to be about $22 million under the salary cap, which makes it seem unlikely they can enter and win the sweepstakes for the presumed No. 1 free-agent quarterback on the market, Kirk Cousins. And yet when pressed to explain what he meant about the team being aggressive in its pursuit of a quarterback, Wilks implied that nothing is impossible.

"What I mean by aggressive right here is when free agency starts, we're going to try to get the best one, not only have a plan A, but a plan B and a Plan C," he said. "You also have to look at trades. And then, there's the draft. We're sitting at 15. Do we feel there is a guy we have to move up for? All those things come into play when I talk about being aggressive, not sitting back.

"Again, we're going to look at every option. Having a guy with experience is a plus, and then also bringing a young guy in that you can grow underneath him."

Whether the Cardinals find their quarterback(s) in free agency, a trade or the draft, they still have plenty of other business to address at other positions. They can't afford to be late to the party on any front. Otherwise, Wilks' talk about this not being a rebuild, but a retool could come back to haunt him.

--Byron Leftwich, who spent nine years in the NFL playing quarterback and spent the past two seasons coaching the position in Arizona under Bruce Arians, has been retained as the team's quarterbacks coach. Suddenly, however, Leftwich doesn't have a single quarterback to coach as none is under contract.

"I don't know how often that happens," Leftwich said, adding, "Is it a little different not knowing the four guys who are going to be in there? Yes. But whatever four guys are in there, I know they're going to come in ready to work and I'm going to come in ready to teach."

--Safety Tyrann Mathieu managed to play in all 16 games last season for the first time in his five-year career. Although he played well, he wasn't the same Honey Badger that was in the running for NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 before suffering his second torn ACL as a pro.

The Cardinals are on the hook to pay him $18.75 million if he remains on the roster by March 14, the first day of the league year. It's part of the five-year deal he signed in 2016 that included $21.25 million in guaranteed salary.

It is believed team representatives will meet with Mathieu's agents this week to discuss a possible restructuring of the contract in order to free up extra money for free-agency signings. Whether Mathieu and his representatives would agree to a restructuring of any kind is unknown at this time.

Listening to Wilks at the Combine, however, it seems the Cardinals still want Mathieu around.

The red suits you well, Coach! Welcome to your new home. #BeRedSeeRed

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"The skill set he has, he can do so much," Wilks said when asked what he thinks of Mathieu as a player. "He can cover, he can blitz. You look at things we've done in Carolina, he fits right into that mold. I like his skill set and how he fits into the 2018 Arizona Cardinals."

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